Tag Archives: Office of Management and Budget

Why rail companies are pushing for one-person train crews

Repost from Fortune

Why rail companies are pushing for one-person train crews

By David Z. Morris, June 11, 2015, 8:17 AM EDT
A BNSF Railway train hauls crude oil near Wolf Point, Mont. Photograph by Matthew Brown — AP
As technology advances, train crews shrink. But is safety on the line?

Most freight rail lines still operate with two-person crews, a minimum is now enshrined in labor contracts held by the United Transportation Union and the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen. But railways, citing in part the rise of automated safety systems, are pushing to change that.

“Most rail corporations would like to get rid of as many workers as possible,” says Ron Kaminkow, general secretary of Railroad Workers United, a group that opposes smaller crews. “Right now, they believe they can operate trains with a single employee.”

Both sides claim safety is their main priority, but there are clearly other motivations—unions want to preserve jobs, while railways are striving to cut labor costs.

Regulators seem to be siding with labor on the question of staffing. The Office of Management and Budget is currently reviewing a proposed Federal Railroad Administration rule that would require at last two railroad employees on a train at all times.

The move to one-person crews would be the culmination of a long process. Mirroring sectors from manufacturing to stock brokerage, technology has allowed the rail industry to shed jobs even as revenues rise. Since the 1960s, innovations including diesel engines, better radios, and wayside monitoring gear has meant less need for warm bodies. U.S. railway employment declined 3% in 2012, the most recent year for which data is available. Those changes and more, says Kaminkow, led to the standardization of two-man freight train crews in the 1990s.

But the replacement of workers by technology has coincided with a massive improvement in railway safety. According to data from George Bibel, a professor of mechanical engineering at the University of North Dakota, derailments have decreased from over 3,000 in 1980 to less than 500 in 2010. A recent Northwestern University study found similar steep declines in rail fatalities.

Nonetheless, rail workers say that reducing crews to a single operator is a step too far. The RWU argues that routine operations like attaching and detaching cars from a train would be unsafe without a team able to see surroundings.

There are more dramatic cases, such as the May 12th derailment of Amtrak 188. Though the incident is still under investigation, the National Transportation Safety Board has looked into the possibility that engineer Brandon Bostian was either distracted by his phone or incapacitated as the train hit a curve at more than twice the posted speed limit. In those scenarios, the fatal crash might have been prevented by a second engineer.

Another tragic incident occurred when a solo engineer improperly parked the train for the night above Lac-Mégantic, Quebec in 2013. It rolled into downtown Lac-Mégantic and exploded, killing 47 and destroying much of the town’s central district. That train was operated by a smaller line not subject to the labor contracts in effect for so-called Class I carriers.

Kaminkow says that freight engineers operate on unpredictable schedules, generating fatigue that can lead to this sort of mistake.

Unless and until the proposed FRA rule passes, there is no national rule on train staffing levels. U.S. states including Washington, Utah, and Iowa are considering their own rules, but these could be vulnerable to challenge under interstate commerce law.

Regardless of the FRA rule, technology will continue to erode rail jobs. With BNSF piloting a program to inspect rail using drones, track crews may shrink. And though Positive Train Control has been touted primarily as a safety measure, Kaminkow says the technology is a major step towards something more radical.

“If PTC comes online,” he says, “[Railways] will then point out that the train is basically capable of running itself.”

From there, driverless trains would be possible, at least in theory.

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    Benicia city council to send letter supporting safer rail measures

    Repost from The Vallejo Times-Herald
    [Editor:  See original documents on the City of Benicia’s website:
          – Staff’s Agenda Report
          – Mayor Patterson’s draft letter of support (not approved)
          – League of Cities letter requesting letters of support & sample letter (sample letter approved)
    For a local news report that fails to describe the City’s recommendations in the letter, see The Benicia Herald.  (The Herald previously detailed these recommendations.)  – RS]

    Benicia council to send letter supporting safer rail measures

    By Irma Widjojo, 04/08/15, 8:36 PM PDT

    Benicia >> The City Council voted unanimously Tuesday night to send a letter in support of several rail safety recommendations to the Federal Office of Management and Budget.

    Mayor Elizabeth Patterson asked the council to consider sending the letter as requested by the League of Cities, of which Benicia is a member.

    The league has adopted 10 recommendation as official policy to “increase rail safety in the transport of hazardous materials.”

    The recommendations include mandating speed limits and electronically controlled braking systems, increasing the federal funding for training and equipment purchases for first responders, regulating the parking and storage of tank cars and others.

    Patterson on Tuesday said sending such a letter usually doesn’t require it to be presented in a city council meeting, however City Councilman Tom Campbell has voiced his concerns due to the pending Valero Crude by Rail project.

    “I wanted the city attorney to give an opinion if we are going to run into an issue of possibly prejudicing ourselves,” Campbell said Tuesday.

    The city is currently processing the use permit and Environmental Impact Report for the project.

    City Attorney Heather McLaughlin said there would not be an issue of bias, since the letter only states that “we just want the oil transported safely.”

    Though the council voted unanimously to send the letter, they opted for the version that was provided by the league, instead of the one that was slightly edited by Patterson.

    “I would go along with the language of the league as provided for consistency,” Vice Mayor Mark Hughes said.

    A Benicia resident and environmental activist spoke during the public comment period stating that the letter will not have any effect on the Valero project.

    “The letter is not going to make much impact as much as I appreciate the spirit of it,” Marilyn Bardet said. “The rail will be built before any policy is put in place.”

    Patterson has also has been an outspoken advocate of tougher crude-by-rail safety measures.

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      Benicia CA: City Council adopts letter encouraging rail safety

      Repost from The Vallejo Times-Herald
      [Editor:  UPDATE: On Tuesday, 4/7/15, the Benicia City Council approved sending the League of California Cities letter by unanimous vote.  See original documents on the City of Benicia’s website:
            – Staff’s Agenda Report
            – Mayor Patterson’s draft letter of support (not approved)
            – League of Cities letter requesting letters of support & sample letter (sample letter approved)
      – RS]

      Benicia mayor to request council to send letter encouraging rail safety

      By Irma Widjojo, 04/06/15, 7:58 PM PDT
      Benicia, California
      Benicia, California

      Benicia >> Mayor Elizabeth Patterson on Tuesday night will be asking the rest of the city council to consider sending a letter to the Federal Office of Management and Budget in support of several rail safety recommendations.

      League-of-CA-Cities-LogoBenicia is a member of the League of Cities, which has adopted 10 recommendation as official policy to “increase rail safety in the transport of hazardous materials.”

      The recommendations include mandating speed limits and electronically controlled braking systems, increasing the federal funding for training and equipment purchases for first responders, regulating the parking and storage of tank cars and others.

      The League Executive Director has requested that cities send letters to the appropriate federal rail safety rule making authority requesting that these measures be implemented, Patterson said.

      Patterson — an outspoken advocate of tougher crude-by-rail safety measures — said she has asked the city attorney to “determine whether sending a letter requesting rail safety improvements would in any way create a due process issue for the city,” since Benicia is currently processing the use permit and Environmental Impact Report for the Valero Crude by Rail project.

      However, the city attorney determined that there would not be an issue since “the letter does not oppose the Valero project or take any position on adequacy of the environmental review for the project.”

      In November, the city attorney released a legal opinion that states that Patterson should not participate in any decision concerning the project because “the appearance of bias” could result in a legal challenge against the city.

      However, the mayor, who has hired her own attorney, at that time indicated she doesn’t intend to follow the city’s advice.

      The council is set to meet at 7 p.m. Tuesday at City Hall, 250 E. L St. Agendas and staff reports can be found on the City’s website.
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        Rail agency’s new head draws kudos, despite string of crashes

        Repost from The Boston Globe

        Rail agency’s new head draws kudos, despite string of crashes

        By Ashley Halsey III, Washington Post, March 22, 2015
        Smoke and flames erupted from railroad tank cars loaded with crude oil that derailed March 5 near Galena, Ill.
        Smoke and flames erupted from railroad tank cars loaded with crude oil that derailed March 5 near Galena, Ill. Mike Burley / Telegraph Herald via Associated Press

        WASHINGTON — After a string of deadly train crashes, a pair of angry US senators stood in New York City’s Grand Central Terminal four months ago to denounce the Federal Railroad Administration as a ‘‘lawless agency, a rogue agency.’’

        They said it was too cozy with the railroads it regulates and more interested in ‘‘cutting corners’’ for them than protecting the public.

        In the past two months, photos of rail cars strewn akimbo beside tracks have rivaled mountains of snow in Boston for play in newspapers and on television.

        But the reaction by Congress to the railroad oversight agency’s performance has been extremely positive recently.

        Accolades were directed at its acting head, Sarah Feinberg, even though her two-month tenure in the job has coincided with an astonishing number of high-profile train wrecks:

        • Feb. 3: Six people were killed when a commuter train hit an SUV at a grade crossing in Valhalla, N.Y.
        • Feb. 4: Fourteen tank cars carrying ethanol jumped the tracks north of Dubuque, Iowa, and three burst into flames.
        • Feb. 16: Twenty-eight tank cars carrying crude oil derailed and caught fire in West Virginia.
        • Feb. 24: A commuter train derailed in Oxnard, Calif., after hitting a tractor-trailer at a grade crossing.
        • March 5: Twenty-one tank cars derailed and leaked crude oil within yards of a tributary of the Mississippi River in Illinois.
        • March 9: The engine and baggage car of an Amtrak train derailed after hitting a tractor-trailer at a grade crossing in North Carolina.

        At first glance, Feinberg seems an unlikely choice to replace Joseph Szabo, the career railroad man who resigned after five years in the job. She is 37, a former White House operative, onetime spokeswoman for Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, and, most recently, chief of staff to the US Department of Transportation secretary.

        Nothing on her résumé says ‘‘railroad.’’

        ‘‘Sometimes it’s good to have an outside person,’’ said Senator Charles Schumer, Democrat of New York, who got a call from Feinberg immediately after the Feb. 3 crash in Valhalla. ‘‘She’s smart, she’s a quick study, she knows how to bring people together. I think she’s the right person for the job.’’

        ‘‘Whether she’s had a lifetime experience riding the rails or working on the rails, she knows how to get to the crux of things and move things forward,’’ said Senator Joe Manchin III, a West Virginia Democrat who arrived at the Feb. 16 crash shortly before Feinberg did. ‘‘I was very impressed.’’

        Schumer calls Feinberg ‘‘hard-nosed’’ and says she isn’t worried if she ruffles some in an industry grown accustomed to a more languid pace of change.

        After the Valhalla crash, Feinberg pulled together a team to come up with a better way to address an issue that kills hundreds of people at grade crossings each year.

        ‘‘We’re at a point where about 95 percent of grade-crossing incidents are due to driver or pedestrian error,’’ Feinberg said. ‘‘While I don’t blame the victims, this is a good example of a problem that needs some new thinking.’’

        A month later, she called on local law enforcement to show a greater presence at grade crossings and ticket drivers who try to beat the warning lights. Next, the railroad agency says it plans ‘‘to employ smarter uses of technology, increase public awareness of grade crossing safety, and improve signage.’’

        ‘‘When it comes to the rail industry, that is lightning fast, and it’s really impressive,’’ said a congressional aide who focuses on transportation.

        Grade-crossing deaths pale in comparison to the potential catastrophe that Feinberg says keeps her awake at night. ‘‘We’re transporting a highly flammable and volatile crude from the middle of the country, more than 1,000 miles on average, to refineries,’’ she said.

        All of the recent crude-oil train derailments happened miles from the nearest town. But little more than a year ago, a CSX train with six crude-oil tank cars derailed on a river bridge in the middle of Philadelphia. And an oil-fueled fireball after a derailment in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, in July 2013 left 47 people dead.

        The number of tank-car trains has expanded exponentially since the start of a production boom centered in North Dakota. Seven years ago, 9,500 tank cars of Bakken crude traveled by railroad. Last year, the number was 493,126. In 2013, an additional 290,000 cars transported ethanol.

        Mindful of the potential for disaster, the White House tasked the Office of Management and Budget and the Transportation Department with figuring out how to safely transport the oil. At DOT, that fell to Feinberg, who had just signed on as chief of staff to Secretary Anthony Foxx.

        ‘‘We found her to be very hands-on, firm but fair, and ready to work with all stakeholders in making fact-based decisions,’’ said Ed Greenberg of the Association of American Railroads. ‘‘She is someone who has quickly recognized the challenges in moving crude oil by rail. And the freight rail industry is ready to work with her” in her new role at the Federal Railroad Administration, he said.

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